‘I’ve always been a story teller’

2018-04-09 16:15
Martin Prozesky, author of Warring Souls, a story of sincerely held religious beliefs at odds with each other.

Martin Prozesky, author of Warring Souls, a story of sincerely held religious beliefs at odds with each other. (Ian Carbutt)

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Academic writer, former university professor, Hilton resident and occasional Witness columnist, Martin Prozesky has now joined the ranks of novelist with his newly published novel, Warring Souls. “I’ve always been a story teller,” he says, adding that he had always dreamt that one day he would write stories.

Tired of the labour that goes into academic work, “which about 10 people read, if you are lucky”, about 10 years ago, Prozesky finally decided to turn that dream into reality.

“I had something I wanted to say about ethics and religion, but I was tired of saying it to a small, specialised readership,” he says. Convinced that there were issues that should be more widely known, Prozesky felt the only way to do that was by means of a story.

Having never written a work of fiction before, Prozesky set about educating himself on how it should be done. “In my research, I picked up that you must have some sort of conflict and, crucially, stick to what you know very well otherwise it will not seem authentic.”

As a boy, growing up and going to school in the Little Karoo town of Oudts­hoorn, Prozesky says that his whole family was very involved in the Anglican Church and he wanted to be a priest from a young age. “Anglicanism was an enormously important factor in my whole formation, particulary the church as a source of resistance to apartheid,” he says.

Prozesky says that while his faith never wavered, his beliefs changed. “That deepest part of you that feels that you are connected with something enormously special, that has been unchanged, but my studies of Christianity and other religions began to make me see that there was no one way in which something so remarkable could be forever captured in words. No one has a monopoly on religious belief.”

Although Prozesky was accepted as a theology candidate and studied the subject in South Africa, England and the United States for over six years, he realised that he was unsuited for the priesthood.

“I had a fabulous education but during the course of it, I began to see that I was a teacher not a pastor. I didn’t have any kind of bedside manner in that I felt  at a loss next to real suffering.”

After a particularly painful bedside encounter with an elderly woman in the last stages of cancer in a large American hospital where he was doing his chaplaincy training, Prozesky realised that the path of a pastor was not for him. He changed direction and became a university teacher, lecturing at Rhodes University, the University of Zimbabwe and, finally, in 1977, ended up at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, where he stayed until 2007 when he took early retirement.

Although retired, Prozesky still works as a researcher and produces publications for UKZN and the University of the Free State, investigating issues in his field of applied ethics, comparative religion and theology.

With this background, Prozesky realised that he had a ready-made story filled with conflict, as well as the advantage of being an expert in the subject matter.

“There’s not just conflict between the different religions,” he says, “but also within the same religion, between the radicals and the fundamentalists.” Both extremes, he says, in any religion consider themselves genuine members of that faith, but are bitterly opposed on many issues.

With a source of conflict identified, Prozesky says he had to decide on a setting, choosing to base his story at a fictitious university in the southern Cape where he grew up and “to give the story some distance”.

“I wanted my main character to be a young woman academic because, crucially, many important voices in ethics and religion come from women, and they haven’t been heard enough,” he says.

“I also wanted her to come from a part of the population that suffered under our past and so she’s a coloured woman who’s just old enough to have lived under apartheid.”

As well as the religious conflict, Prozesky also wanted to include a young versus older conflict and did this by making his protagonist’s opponent the vice chancellor of the university, an older white man, “a decent man, with a sincerely held, very conservative evangelical form of Christianity”. He had to be in a position of authority, Prozesky says, and while his main character is brighter, sharper and hugely talented, she is not in a position of academic power, “so whatever power she has, has to come not through the institution but from some other source — essentially moral power”. Prozesky is quick to point out that this is not a story about good versus bad, but rather one of “incompatible sincerities, about different understandings of goodness and how the gulf can perhaps be crossed”. He says that while the story moves through a series of conflicts between the two and their followers, it doesn’t end as a story of conflict.

Now that the sluices have been opened, Prozesky says that he is seriously considering another novel, the bones of which he already has in his mind.

“I found it extremely difficult to pull off the challenges of sheer creativity, inventing a world that doesn’t exist, people who don’t exist, taking great care that they are not obviously modelled on people, and at the same time making it realistic and plausible. I know how to do that now, so the next novel shouldn’t take 10 years,” he says.

• Linda Longhurst is the features and books editor at The Witness.



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